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The Real Steal
February 11, 2008
While baseball fixated on the destination of a two-time Cy Young winner, self-effacing Orioles ace Erik Bedard quietly surfaced as an off-season pickup who could make an equally big impact
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February 11, 2008

The Real Steal

While baseball fixated on the destination of a two-time Cy Young winner, self-effacing Orioles ace Erik Bedard quietly surfaced as an off-season pickup who could make an equally big impact

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HE IS a foreign-born, 28-year-old southpaw who's just over six feet tall. He has the ability to flummox lefthanded and righthanded hitters alike with a stunning mix of power and finesse. He has become, says an American League general manager, "an annual Cy Young candidate," and one who was available this off-season to any deep-pocketed and prospect-rich club interested in adding a top-of-the-rotation ace. He is not, however, Johan Santana, the erstwhile Minnesota Twin. � He is Erik Bedard, who was born seven days before Santana in March 1979 and last year proved that he can wreak Santana-like havoc on hitters. He tied Santana (and two others) for fifth in the AL Cy Young voting, and would likely have challenged C.C. Sabathia for the award had a strained right oblique not cost him the final five weeks of the season. Only eight starters in the history of the game have had a season in which they struck out more batters per nine innings than the 10.93 Bedard averaged last year for the Baltimore Orioles. Just three—Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling—have done so while topping Bedard's strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.88 to 1. Most of his other key statistics in 2007 compared favorably with Santana's: Pitching for a worse team, Bedard went 13--5 with a 3.16 ERA versus Santana's 15--13 and 3.33. Bedard also allowed 19 home runs to Santana's league-worst 33.

" Santana's more polished and has had more sustained success," says first baseman Kevin Millar, who frequently battled Bedard as a member of the Boston Red Sox before joining the Orioles two years ago. "But Bedard's stuff, when he puts it all together, is better."

Yet for much of baseball's winter of discontent the only story that knocked the Mitchell Report (and its fallout) from the headlines was the Santana Sweepstakes, which mercifully ended last Friday with the completion of his trade to the New York Mets (box, page 60). Bedard might represent even greater value in a trade than Santana, because Bedard won't be a free agent until after the 2009 season and probably will be paid less over the next two seasons—in arbitration with the Orioles, he's seeking $8 million for '08—than Santana will make in the first year of his new contract ($19 million). It was only in the past two weeks or so that Bedard's name regularly entered the discourse, as the subject of a trade that would send him to the Seattle Mariners for a package that includes 22-year-old outfield prospect Adam Jones and reliever George Sherrill. (As of Monday, the deal was reportedly pending results of players' physicals.)

As the discussions continued, Bedard, who likes attention about as much as Thomas Pynchon does, was happy to stay far, far away from the spotlight.

THERE ARE two places in the world where Bedard truly feels comfortable: on the mound and in his hometown. As soon as Baltimore completed its last game, he got into his truck and sped due north, as he has every October. Eight hours later he arrived in Navan, Ont. (pop. 1,450), the rural village 18 miles east of Ottawa in which he has lived with his parents and younger brother since he was four. "It's calming here," he says. "When I'm here I don't think about the media, or trade rumors, or what's going on with the team. I just concentrate on working out, getting ready for the season. I put all my energy into that."

He sleeps in his folks' basement, in a lair fit for a college student. A poster of Bruce Lee hangs above a rumpled bed. A Molson kegerator sits in a corner. Trophies commemorating past athletic glories cover nearly every flat surface.

Erik and his brother, Mark, 25, an elevator mechanic like their father was, work out for two hours each evening in the small weight room next to Erik's bedroom and play RBI Baseball on old-school Nintendo between sets. Starting in December, Erik throws to Mark every two or three days—sessions that in the past few years were conducted at their cousin Robert Laplante's nearby poultry farm, in an empty barn that for much of the year houses 40,000 chickens and has an ammoniac stink that lingers in your sinuses for hours after a visit. ("Smells like money," Laplante likes to joke.)

Despite the increased presence of Canadians in the major leagues—Bedard became the 200th to play in the bigs when he debuted in 2002 and is part of a cadre of stars that includes Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, Jeff Francis and Russell Martin—strangers rarely stop him on the street to talk about the game. "Nobody bothers me up here," he says. "It's like my fortress of solitude."

To expand upon the Superman theme, Navan might well be baseball's Krypton: an isolated and far-off place from whence sprang a man of rare and wondrous powers. "He's one of the best pitchers I've ever been around—stuffwise, certainly," says Leo Mazzone, the former Orioles pitching coach who also tutored future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in his 15 1/2 seasons with the Atlanta Braves. "I told him, 'The best compliment I can give you is that I had the privilege of coaching the greatest starting rotations in the history of baseball, and you could have fit right in on any of them.'"

Over the past season and a half, in particular, Bedard has demonstrated that he's in command of one of the most versatile arsenals of any pitcher in baseball. Crowd the plate and he'll bust you inside; step in the bucket and he'll nibble outside. He throws three types of fastballs—a four-seamer that touches 95 mph, a two-seam sinker and a cutter—as well as a sharp curve and a changeup that Mazzone says is only 60% developed. The pitch that has raised Bedard to elite status, though, might be the one that Mazzone refers to as "the comebacker," a sinker that appears to a righthanded hitter to be headed inside before it drifts back over the plate. Bedard's insistence on throwing it concerned Mazzone at first. "I said, 'You know the margin of error is very small on that pitch,'" recalls Mazzone. "'It doesn't go away from the barrel but comes to it.' He looked at me and said, 'They can't hit it.' And I said, 'O.K., let's see.' And they couldn't." (Indeed, lefthanded batters hit .229 against Bedard in '07, righties only .209.)

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